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The top 10 fights of the decade

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UFC 189 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There was no shortage of amazing fights over the last decade, which made tallying the top ten challenging and, dare I say, enjoyable.

In MMA, it’s often fantastic finishes that steal the headlines — dramatic knockouts and anatomically stunning submissions. But such a conclusion isn’t necessary when considering the great fights of the decade. Sure, sometimes we get that closure, but what makes a fight great is the ebb and flow of the exchanges between two fighters that are meeting each other at the perfect time.

During a great fight, you’re never completely sure who is going to win until the referee waves off the action or raises one of the competitors’ hands. For fans, when watching a truly great fight, nothing else in the world matters for as long as the war wages on. Afterwards, it clings to your memory like the inauguration of a president, and it feels like a milestone in the sport’s history.

10. Mark Hunt vs. Antonio Silva 1

UFC Fight Night: Hunt v Bigfoot Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Fans and media could smell a knockout in the cards when K-1 superstar and resurgent UFC heavyweight Mark Hunt was pitted against gargantuan Brazilian Antonio Silva in the main event of UFC Fight Night Brisbane in November 2011.

The stoppage would never come, but the spectators that night were treated to a rollercoaster of emotions, which resulted in arguably the greatest heavyweight fight in MMA history.

Silva got the better of things in the first 10 minutes. He even sent the notoriously durable Kiwi to the canvas in the first round. However, a piston right hand put the Brazilian down at the midway point of the fight, and it completely shifted the momentum back in the favor of “The Super Samoan.” Silva roared back towards the end of the fourth after a strong start from Hunt, whose platinum locks were died pink by free-flowing blood.

In a furious final stanza, Hunt threw caution to the win as he catapulted himself into exchanges, leaving Silva’s face looking like a butcher’s block as he swallowed hook after hook. Although he stumbled on several occasions, the Brazilian remained on his feet as Hunt sliced through his guard with elbows between lashings of power shots.

Blood completely camouflaged the left side of Silva’s face by the time final bell sounded. Ultimately, the bout was declared a draw, a fitting result given the toll on both men’s bodies.

Although he had been cleared to use testosterone replacement therapy ahead of the fight, Silva failed a test for elevated level of the substance in the aftermath of the clash. Hunt’s resume reflected a draw, but Silva’s was marked with a no-contest due to that post-fight failure. Silva received a nine-month suspension and his $50,000 bonus was awarded to Hunt.

9. Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 1

nate diaz - conor mcgregor Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It was obvious from the second they both stood on a stage together for the UFC 196 pre-fight press conference that Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz were a match made in heaven.

McGregor was at the height of his powers on the back of his flash knockout of Jose Aldo. After being drafted on short notice due to a late withdrawal from Rafael dos Anjos, Diaz was perceived as the underdog despite his superior experience at welterweight.

Without the strain of a weight cut, the Irishman was more outspoken and confident than ever ahead of the meeting. He openly took shots at Diaz’s wealth and his intelligence. The Stockton native’s focus appeared to be on the fight itself; he took aim at McGregor’s training partners and previous opponents during verbal exchanges.

When the fight got underway, McGregor unloaded his full arsenal to the body, head and legs of Diaz. Diaz took wheel kicks, oblique kicks to the knee, turning side kicks to the body and a number of McGregor’s signature lefts. But other than his bloody façade, Diaz seemed undeterred as the second round got underway.

It took most spectators roughly two minutes to realize that John Kavanagh’s prediction of a “full recovery” for his fighter between the first and second rounds would not materialize.

After eating a classic one-two from Diaz, the Dubliner stumbled back and took a deep breath. Diaz smelled blood, and he went in for the kill, throwing slaps and hooks before smothering his foe against the fence. McGregor rallied a final time, but after eating another pair of two-shot combos, the writing was on the wall when he shot in for a takedown. Diaz locked in a guillotine, used it to sweep, and took mount. There, he dropped bombs until the Irishman gave up his back. Shortly thereafter, McGregor succumbed to a rear-naked choke.

McGregor edged his way to revenge against Diaz five months later at UFC 202. Regardless of either fighters’ form, their trilogy fight is one of the most anticipated in the sport’s history.

8. Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler 1

Michael Chandler - Eddie Alvarez Bellator MMA

November 19, 2011 was a magical night for MMA, and one of the two reasons for that was the undefeated Michael Chandler’s title shot against defending Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez. It arguably was the greatest fight in the history of the promotion.

The undefeated Chandler wasted no time trying to claim the belt, dropping Alvarez twice in the first ten seconds. The infamous durability of Alvarez surfaced when he landed a sharp right hand that brought the challenger pause.

In the third round, Chandler strugged as he ate combination after combination from the champion. Bruised and bloodied from Alvarez’s attacks, he still managed to stay in the fray, taking gulps of air between shots as he tried to get out of the way of Alvarez’s forward march.

With Chandler’s eyes peering out of two swollen sockets in the fourth round, Alvarez seemed to be ascendant. And sure enough, the fight’s momentum shifted irrevocably when Chandler landed a right hand off a scramble at the halfway mark of the round. Ten seconds later, another overhand right sent Alvarez hurtling to the canvas. Shortly after, Chandler locked in a rear-naked choke that quickly forced the tap from Alvarez.

The victory made Chandler a star, and his defeat of Alvarez brought a ton of new eyeballs to Bellator on the world stage.

7. Mauricio Rua vs. Dan Henderson 1

Dan Henderson - Shogun Rua Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

At the same time that Chandler and Alvarez were going hell-for-leather in Hollywood, Florida, legends Mauricio Rua and Dan Henderson were going to war in the main event of UFC 139 in San Jose.

The fight began with a role reversal; “Shogun” sought a takedown before Henderson crumbled the Brazilian to the canvas his patented right hand. Before the end of the round, Rua returned the favor.

Rua was on the verge of being stopped after another right hand in the third round. But just minutes later, he was on top of Henderson, raining down shots in an effort to get back into the contest. After controlling much of the action in the fourth, Henderson was sent reeling and was forced to consume a number of shots before escaping the Brazilian’s mount.

Although it felt as though Rua did enough to earn a 10-8 in the final round, all three judges awarded the former Pride and UFC champion with a 10-9 nod, bringing Henderson a unanimous decision win.

6. Robbie Lawler vs. Carlos Condit

UFC 195 fight photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Robbie Lawler couldn’t have possibly thought that he’d have a fight as hellish as a pair of meetings with Rory MacDonald, but when Carlos Condit introduced him to the canvas in the first round of their UFC 195 clash, it brought him crashing back to reality.

Former interim title holder Condit was caught flush while off balance in the second round, and that made way for a third round where both men had success. Before the fourth, Lawler and his corner insisted he needed both the fourth and fifth to secure the victory.

Seeking the opposite result, Condit swarmed the defending champ, blasting him from the clinch with straight shots. But in the final frame, with 90 seconds left on the clock, Lawler burst into action and landed several jarring hooks and knees that demanded the full attention of referee John McCarthy.

By the time the action was stopped, the two men stood side-by side, hands held up the Octagon fence as adoration poured from the audience. Two of three judges scored the fight for Lawler in his second title defense — a decision debated to this day. After the painstakingly close loss, Condit remains one of the first fighters that comes to mind when considering the greatest fighters to never win an undisputed UFC title.

5. Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Johnson

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

No fighter in the history of the UFC has so emphatically lived up to expectation in a debut as much as Justin Gaethje’s meeting with Michael Johnson in July 2017.

He might not have won the opening round, but there were a lot of elements on show that were typical of Gaethje: He landed a lot of leg kicks, took a lot of shots, and, of course, he never took a step backward. In the final 30 seconds of the opening round, his knees buckled from a Johnson right hand, but despite Johnson throwing everything but the kitchen sink, he was still smiling when the bell sounded to end his first five minutes as a UFC fighter.

Ninety seconds into the second round, down Gaethje went from another Johnson right hand. But as “The Menace” chased the big shot, it was increasingly clear it would be his last throw of the dice. Only two minutes after he’d fallen, Gaethje took the wind out of Johnson’s sails with a right uppercut. Johnson sank to the canvas, taking his time to recover.

Gaethje carved him up as soon as he righted himself. As Johnson retreated to the fence, a thrust of Gaethje’s knee sent him to the canvas and prompted referee McCarthy into action.

In just over two years with the organization, Gaethje has minted his reputation as one of the most fan-friendly fighters in the UFC

4. Nick Diaz vs. Paul Daley

Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley Photo by Esther Lin/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Show me someone who says that Nick Diaz’s Strikeforce welterweight title fight with Paul Daley isn’t the greatest one-round fight ever, and I’ll show you a liar.

A single throng of what sounded like a doomsday bell brought the lights down on the San Diego premises for the official introductions. If that wasn’t enough to whet your appetite, Diaz and Daley’s pre-fight scowls should have done the job.

In customary Diaz fashion, he met Daley in the middle of the cage, backed him up and immediately mixed a physical onslaught with verbal attacks. But then, a left hook from Daley sent him down, and suddenly, Diaz showcased an avant-garde approach to head movement – from all fours.

After swarming Diaz with his patented left hook, Daley found himself in the worst possible position, with his back against the fence as the champion showcased his volume striking to the body and head. Daley, the striking sensation, shot for a takedown on the jiu-jitsu ace.

Following a brief exchange on the ground, Diaz added more sauce to his shots as Daley tried to get his wind back. With 90-seconds left on the clock, he clipped Diaz with his left again, sending him falling forward to the canvas. “Semtex” rained down shots from his back in an effort to stop the bout, but somehow Diaz stayed in there.

Daley must still regret the decision to let Diaz back to his feet for the final 30 seconds of the round.

Diaz marched forward and unleashed a brutal combination that sent Daley cascading to the canvas with ten-seconds left in the round. John McCarthy watched on as Diaz landed a handful of shots to the defenseless Daley, forcing him to wave off the contest with three seconds left.

3. Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson 1

Gallery Photo: UFC 165 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Outside of Steve Mazzagatti, nobody has blemished Jon Jones’ record, and the vast majority of people, especially those in the United States, didn’t expect European upstart Alexander Gustafsson to be the fighter that would steer “Bones” to defeat when they collided at UFC 165. Sure, Gustafsson measured up to the uber prospect in terms of heights. But it felt as though he wasn’t viewed as a real contender, at least until the opening bell rang.

It was then Gustafsson proved that not only could he easily exchange with Jones, but he could take him down too. He became the first fighter to score a takedown on Jones, and all inside 5 minutes. In doing so, he extinguished a common refrain from some pockets of the fan base that insisted Europeans couldn’t wrestle.

In the second, it was Jones who was searching for a takedown. He grew into the fight as it wore on, but Gustafsson gave as much as he got, and his efforts were not lost on Jones’ corner, who frantically urged him into action ahead of the championship rounds.

Behind a mask of exhaustion and bewilderment, Jones found a big moment at the end of the fourth round, landing a signature spinning elbow and a feast of knees after chasing much of the round.

“This is nothing – all you need is one more round!” the Swede’s corner urged him between rounds. However, Jones kept his best work for the final five minutes, punctuated by elbows, his first successful takedown of the fight and a jarring head kick.

A relieved Jones hoisted hands aloft on the announcement of his unanimous decision win. Emptied of effort, Gustafsson slumped in his coach’s arms after a performance that would see him become a perennial contender.

To this day, Gustafsson is considered the person who came closest to defeating Jones, bearing in mind that Jones’ sole loss came by way of technicality when he illegally elbowed Matt Hamill into oblivion in 2009.

2. Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If anyone questioned the heart, stamina, chin or ground game of Israel Adesanya before his UFC 236 encounter with Kelvin Gastelum, the 25-minute display the interim championship duo put on in Atlanta, Georgia in April 2019 quickly swept those queries under the carpet.

An early right from Gastelum put “The Last Sytlebender” in worse trouble than we had ever seen before in MMA, and it forced him to use the fence to stay upright. Adesanya roared back with a right hand that sat Gastelum down in the second. In the middle frame, Gastelum was stuck in the headlights of the striking supremo, absorbing several clean right hands as Adesanya went about his business. It was much of the same until he caught the Nigerian with a brisk left straight that forced a quick retreat in the fourth. Until the bell that ended the stanza sounded, Adesanya was forced to play matador as Gastelum bulldozed forward and looked for a conclusive shot.

The most miraculous thing about the fight was Adesanya’s fifth-round resurgence. Gastelum shot out of his corner from the first bell in an attempt to put the finishing touches on his late surge, only to be halted be an uncharacteristic guillotine attempt. When he took the fight to the ground, Adesanya almost locked in a triangle — shocking many who believed Gastelum would completely dominate the grappling proceedings — and got back to his feet. From there, it was all Adesanya. Gastelum was forced to pick himself up off the ground on two occasions in before the fight ended.

The two men embraced in the middle of the Octagon, and when the result was announced in favor of the Adesanya, the world knew they were looking at the next face of the promotion. Six months later, the undefeated City Kickboxing product claimed the undisputed title with a second round stoppage of Robert Whittaker in the main event of UFC 243.

1. Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald 2

Robbie Lawler - Rory MacDonald Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC 189 co-main event rematch between champion Robbie Lawler and the man who many perceived as a future UFC champion, Rory MacDonald, reminded the world that mixed-martial arts is about more than Conor McGregor, who headlined that event in a short-notice bout with Chad Mendes for the interim featherweight title.

MacDonald’s nose was pounded into his face by the time the fourth round was brought to a close. But he was up three rounds to one on all three judges’ scorecards.

In one of the greatest moments of combat theater ever witnessed, Lawler, with his lip split to his nose, stared at MacDonald before they parted ways to prepare for the final round, letting him know that the damage of the third and fourth were distant memories.

Through a crimson mask, MacDonald held his ground as Lawler tried to pierce his soul with his black eyes. But in the end, it was referee “Big” John McCarthy and cutman “Stitch” Duran that had to separate them.

Before returning to the fray, Lawler raised his arms aloft to the crowd, preparing them for the onslaught that he was about to unravel. A minute into the final round, MacDonald’s body slumped to the canvas on the back of several Lawler hammers, as if there wasn’t a single unit of energy left for him to give to his championship pursuit.

The victorious Lawler let out a primal roar as he basked in the chaos. A stream of blood ran from MacDonald’s face to the canvas as he forced himself back to his feet. It was a fight that would call the Canadian’s longevity into question.

In Ireland, where some of the mainstream media — relative newcomers to the sport through the emergence of McGregor — still debated whether the results of the sport were predetermined, Lawler vs. MacDonald II was a stark reality check regarding the physical toll of combat sports. A true fight for the ages, it was the first and only time MacDonald fought for a UFC title.